R.I.P., Sporty Sally: Why The Persona Should Finally Die

“Sally is truly moving the needle for us. She’s responding well to our multichannel campaigns, and we see potential growth in Kevin and Lynn. We’re so happy.” Laptop closes, presentation ends.

As marketers, we take comfort in bucketing millions of individuals into a pretty, little “persona package” that’s easy to make up and explain to clients: Sally, 36 years old, Caucasian, mother of two, shops at Old Navy, likes Taylor Swift and Starbucks, drives a Toyota Camry. Such an approach also allows us to reach for the quick win and create materials that “fit perfectly” into that cookie-cutter persona.

In reality, personas are a marketing crutch — laziness polished into a PowerPoint slide — and the weight they continue to hold amazes me. It’s hard to think about creating a truly personalized, contextually relevant marketing message knowing that billions of people exist. I’m a 44-year-old white male who lives in Texas and drives an SUV. According to probably every persona ever created, I must like country music and support President Trump. But that couldn’t be more wrong.



Of course, people are more complex than that. And they expect more: According to a 2016 Accenture report, 75% of consumers are more likely to purchase when organizations personalize their marketing efforts.

The Pitfalls of the Persona

When I took the creative director role at, my first goal was to forgo the notion that personas improve the user experience. Imagine you’re single and living in rural Arkansas. You log into and read about how to meet others on the subway or at nearby events. But there are no nearby events, and you’ve never ridden the subway.

This example may be oversimplified, but it highlights a fundamental shortcoming in persona-based marketing: The feelings that such a user encounters when seeking love are a huge opportunity to create real, personal, and meaningful experiences that make the user feel understood.

Moreover, and for digital experiences, the persona provides marketers a convenient excuse to get out of actually meeting their users. Mapping out a few personas that are then catered to only means that we’re defaulting to current user needs instead of creating new ones or the right ones. But the best companies are successfully marketing products and services to users before users realize they need them.

Consider the Individualism of the Individual

Personas stop innovation. Instead of making assumptions about people, we should use data to drive predictive marketing that adds value to their lives. We do this by making a moment trigger a marketing reaction rather than leaning on the “spray and pray” persona-based method. This process is called creating “missions,” and it allows us to speak to larger groups of people in a more personal way.

For example, if 7-Eleven wants to motivate someone pumping gas to buy goods in the store, how can it use data to do this? Well, users must get out of their cars to pump gas. This is a moment, so we take that moment and serve up something that can stimulate entry, like digital-display content that’s strategically created for parts of the day. In the morning, we show images of hot coffee and sticky cinnamon rolls; in the evening, a refreshing drink.

Unfortunately, personas probably aren’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be more informed. We live in a world full of data that, in the right hands, can render many personalized experiences. Instead of marginalizing huge swaths of the population, then, marketers should create a true value exchange in incredibly personal ways that render real conversions between brands and their consumers.

3 comments about "R.I.P., Sporty Sally: Why The Persona Should Finally Die".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. R. M. from self, March 1, 2018 at 2:59 p.m.

    In the example of 7-Eleven, brand would need a plan B for the states that do not allow self serve gas & people do not get out of cars but play on devices when gas attendant pumps gas. Messaging on those devices, at moment of arrival (at gas station where there is a 7-Eleven and not their competitor) would then have to offer content to motivate the driver to pull over after paying for gas... or to skip gas & spend that money inside instead.

    Agree on other parts of article. EVERY person has multiple shopper/user personas.... so a persona is not at all a simplification. It now adds exponential number of options for any consumer being reached. An algorithm is needed per person at any given moment.

  2. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, March 2, 2018 at 1:53 p.m.

    This is going to sound crazy, but how you use personas is similar to how you could consider an atomic model; either through a simple structure or through quantum mechanics. 

    If you paid attention in high school, you might have seen a drawing of an atom with a nucleus, and a bunch of electrons around the nucleus, usually arranged in fixed orbits. That would be like a simple persona, but that's not how it people really behave (nor how atoms behave).

    A quantum model would show even a single electron in a probability wave of where it might be at any given time in relation to the nucleus. Personas are the same thing. If you think of them as probability models, the people in your target are somewhere near or far to that nucleus that describes them. If you stick to the nucleus, chances are you will reach very few members of your audience. 

    Sometimes the worst thing you can do is name your persona based on a particular habit, i.e., "pickup-driving whatevers." People interpret that as, "we have to target pickup drivers," thus missing a huge audience potential. 

    Thank you for reading (all 3 of you). Usually when I try to explain this in a meeting I notice eyes drooping. 

  3. R. M. from self replied, March 2, 2018 at 4:20 p.m.

    No eye drooping, as I think you are right. This is the interesting part of mar-tech. Agree that the "pick up driver" type persona, swings too far the wrong way... and does not even hit 1 to 1 targeting, much less the actual 1 to 1+ personal persona. 

    4Q is probably damaging to most algorithm's future accuracy, as gift giving is a top reason for people to act outside their primary persona.  I end up being retargeted for purchase categories that were gifts and not attributable to my interests. Apparel probably has the most skew on this. e.g. if I bought baby clothes as gift but dont have a child. Am I then in a "new parent" persona?

    The industry is not yeat ready to segment 1 person by multiple personas, much less content serve dynamically to each of the sub personas.

    Again apparel has more variables... even a "this is your best size" site function gets screwed up by their own product catgories. e.g. Macys tells me my best shoes size is 7.5 (as it is averaging puchases of size 7 shoes, and size 8 boots). So it's 7.5 reco is no longer correct.

    Makes you wonder what we are in for, for the long term. Applying tech "top down" in the buying process is not likely to be best investment. Not on a global competitive scale.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications